Two special grads, one common, important theme


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There's an emotion unique to high school graduation ceremonies, at least there is in my experience.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/06/2010 (4543 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s an emotion unique to high school graduation ceremonies, at least there is in my experience.

It’s the hat-throwing joy of accomplishment, muted by shades of sadness for what’s passed, and then mixed with hope and fear of the future.

But Monday at the St. John’s High School convocation, there were two grads — one of them of the honorary variety for those who have already lived that hopeful, fearful future.

RUTH.BONNEVILLE@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Burton Cummings with school photo montage.

Their experience involves a different kind of emotion.

For both Burton Cummings, the famed rocker, and Mike McKay, the obscure army sergeant, it was the feeling evoked by looking back at the crossroads in their lives, and a path well-chosen.

Even if it didn’t involve finishing high school.


— — —

There were 97 grads on the 100th anniversary of St. John’s High, 98 if you count the Burton Cummings honorary diploma.

But 45 years after dropping out of St. John’s, it was Cummings who brought the media pack to Pantages.

"Wow," Burton started. "This is tremendous."

Then he offered congratulations to the kids in the crowd, who like him, were wearing the black gowns with the V-shaped white fronts. The real stars of the show, as it were.

"They actually passed the exams," the 62-year-old former frontman for the Guess Who added. "I didn’t."

Later, backstage, he shared in more detail why he dropped out.

How, just before he turned 17, the principal, Mr. Rykman, told Burton he couldn’t sing the following year in The Pirates of Penzance because his grades were so poor.

Burton’s self-created major in high school was singing in the operettas.

"I was heartbroken and it was enough impetus to make me leave school."

In retrospect, Burton considers the principal did him a huge favour.

"Because the Guess Who would never have asked me to leave school to join their band."

"My life would have been completely different. They would have got a different lead singer had I stayed in school that last year. Sure I would have gotten to do Pirates of Penzance but I might not have 20 gold records."

Sgt. Mike McKay’s story was the same, but different.

McKay, like Cummings, already knew what he wanted to do when he dropped out of St. John’s back in the late 1980s.

Before then even.

"I grew up in the all-too-typical North End home," McKay told his much younger fellow grads. "My family was very, very poor and we had all the problems associated with that."

McKay described where his walk to school started each day.

"I was actually walking down a very bad path. Without getting into great detail, I wasn’t actually the most model student."

"I wouldn’t say I was in a gang," McKay told me later. "But I would say I was well on my way."

RUTH.BONNEVILLE@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Burton Cummings and Sgt. Mike McKay with degrees Monday.

And he was only 12.

"But I was lucky," he told audience. "I had one escape."

His parents, particularly his mother, forced him to join the army cadets.

By 15 he had decided he wanted to join the army when he finished school.

He didn’t finish, though.

He was one credit short of his high school degree when he enlisted.

Then one day, years later, on his second tour of Afghanistan he had an epiphany of sorts.

"We had just finished being engaged by the insurgents. And we were conducting an after-action review."

McKay grabbed a coffee and began going over his notes to see if he had missed anything.

He had. That one credit. He began thinking about how the young soldiers under his command, some of them fresh out of high school, would talk about their high school years and where they graduated. McKay was embarrassed. He wouldn’t say anything.

"I could blame it on economics," he told the audience. "I could blame it on a lot of things. But I knew deep inside that it was none of that. There’s only one thing I could blame it on. That was me."

He decided right then he would return to St. John’s and graduate.

"I wanted to finish what I started so many years earlier."

What he didn’t know then was he was already eligible for a credit — his one missing credit — because of some of the courses he took in the army.

"Finish what you start," was his message to the Class of 2010.

There’s another lesson in all of this.

Yes, education is important, especially today. But education can be obtained at any age and any stage.

There’s nothing more important than doing what you love to do.


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